The untold racism of Woodrow Wilson

Frank CagleFrank Talk

There may soon be another effort to remove the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from his perch next to the House and Senate chambers in the state Capitol. The process begins with the State Capitol Commission and a previous vote for action lost 7-5. Gov. Bill Lee has since appointed two new black members to the Commission, one of them being Knoxville radio host Hallerin Hill.

Frank Cagle

The change in the make-up of the board could mean a different outcome next time. A meeting on the issue has not been set, though Lee says it will be soon.

The bust of the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan was installed in the 1970s due to the efforts of the late Democratic state Sen. Douglas Henry. There have been protests over the years, though opposition to displaying the bust has grown of late.

If we want to rid the Capitol of tributes to racist Democrats, I have another candidate. The adjacent War Memorial Building has a quote prominently etched in stone from President Woodrow Wilson. You can make a case that Wilson did more to harm America’s black citizens than Forrest ever did.

Wilson was from Virginia and not only would he be judged a racist by current standards, he was considered a racist by the standards of the times in which he lived. Since the Civil War the federal government, under Republican presidents, had integrated the Civil Service and federal employment in general. Wilson re-segregated federal offices, blaming it on requests from his cabinet. They put up walls and drapes to separate black employees from white employees. Lunch rooms and bathrooms were separated into whites only and blacks only.

Wilson had a college classmate named Thomas Dixon who wrote a novel called “The Clansman.” D.W. Griffith took the book, made the first full-length movie and called it “Birth of a Nation.” What film historians who extol the virtues of the movie’s techniques often neglect to tell you is that the “nation” is the Ku Klux Klan. The movie depicts black men as ape-like creatures out to rape white women. The Klan comes to the rescue and fights against the terrible depredations of Reconstruction.

Wilson screened the movie in the White House giving it the imprimatur of the federal government. The movie became a nationwide sensation. The Civil War had been over for 50 years but the “heroic” Klan in the popular movie transformed a small collection of racists hanging around Pulaski, Tennessee, into a nationwide movement. The first movie also had the first commercial tie-ins. Klan memorabilia sold like hotcakes. The original Klan didn’t burn crosses, but a scene in the movie made it a popular activity on a slow Saturday night among the newly formed nationwide terrorist organization.

The poisonous atmosphere led to renewed efforts to enforce Jim Crow laws, voting rights violations and lynching.

That’s why students at Princeton, where Wilson rose to fame as an educator, have called for his name to be removed from buildings on campus. But he is so embedded in the place the administration has resisted.

So, judge for yourself. Forrest resigned from the Klan. Wilson embraced segregation, promoted a powerful movie promoting racism and the spread of the Klan into a nationwide terrorist group. Who did more to hurt black citizens, Forrest or Wilson?

In sum, when you go back 100 years or 150 years you will discover that there are few historical figures who are sinless on the issue of slavery and segregation.

This is the Wilson quote on the War Memorial Building: “America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured.”

Except the principle that all men are created equal?

The Big O: Remember when Ed Orgeron was a coach at the University of Tennessee? He’s now coach of the LSU Tigers who just defeated the Crimson Tide and should be ranked the No. 1 team in the country. (Which gave you the most satisfaction, the Vols beating Kentucky or LSU’s beating Alabama?) When Lane Kiffin left UT for the University of Southern California, he took Orgeron with him. No one suggested trying to hire Orgeron as UT’s new coach. But if they had we would have been spared Derek Dooley and Butch Jones.

Election post-mortem: Can we now assume that Bill Haslam will be the last Republican mayor of Knoxville? The city has been trending Democratic in recent elections and Democrat Indya Kincannon won despite running against a good candidate in Eddie Mannis and being substantially outspent. Craig Griffith, a former deputy to Mayor Victor Ashe and a panelist on WATE’s “Tennessee This Week,” did an analysis of the numbers and points out that Mannis got most of his vote west and north, but he didn’t win his precincts by a large enough margin to be competitive with Kincannon. There was no Republican surge in the western suburbs like West Hills. Kincannon got new voters in the general, but she also got virtually all of the votes that third place finisher Marshall Stair got in the primary. Stair endorsed Kincannon.


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